The Picts were the original pagan inhabitants of northern Britain, descended from the Iron Age inhabitants of the region, and whose name comes from pictii, the Latin word for “painted.” Until the tenth century, this region was known to many as “Pictland,” for the people who lived beyond Hadrian’s Wall, built by the Romans along the border of modern-day England and Scotland to protect their settlements from the fierce, tattooed raiders from the north.
The Picts left no written records of their history, and so everything known about them originates with those who knew them as rivals and enemies. The first mention of them dates to 297 A.D., in a work by the panegyrist Eumenius, at a time when the Romans were dealing with troublesome Pictish raids from the north. The emperor Constantius had invaded Britain to deal with the Picts and other northern pagans in the previous year. The campaign eventually drove the Picts north and well away from the Roman settlements, and led to the recapture of the entire province of Britain for Rome.
By tradition the Picts divided themselves into seven tribes, descended from the seven sons of Cruithne, the ancestor of the Pictish people. They may have lived under the domination of independent warlords who settled themselves into strongholds such as Castle Urquhart, on the shore of Loch Ness. In fact, the Picts may not have been a single people or realm at all until the arrival of the Romans, who posed a threat serious enough to prod the peoples of the northern Highlands region to band together into a new military or political confederation.
The Picts were converted to Christianity by the sixth-century missionary St. Colomba, a sixth-century Irish monk who traveled to northern Britain, performing miracles, healing the sick, and preaching the gospel. In the Life of St. Colomba, the author Adamnan describes an occasion when the monk was obliged to cross the Nesa or Ness River, and encountered a group of pagans preparing to bury a man who had been killed by a terrible river monster. Not believing in these Pictish legends, the saint ordered one of his companions to immediately swim across the river. When the monster reappeared, and approached the man with the intention of swallowing him whole, Colomba raised his hands, invoked the name of God, and ordered the monster to cease and desist. The writer claims that the monster’s humble obedience turned the pagans who witnessed this event to Christianity; this is also the first written mention in any source of the Loch Ness monster.
Later the Picts formed a kingdom with its seat at Scone, the traditional home of later Scottish kings. In 845 the Pictish throne passed to Kenneth I MacAlpin, son of the Scottish king Alpin, a bitter rival of the Pictish King Oengus. Through jealousy or a desire for revenge, Kenneth murdered the members of the seven royal houses of the Picts and thus erased their existence as a separate realm and people in northern Britain. The Picts merged with the Gaels, whose kingdom of Dal Riata later became the Kingdom of Alba, and these two peoples, along with the Brythons, emerged in the Middle Ages as the Scots.